Officials simplify visa process

    In response to reports of difficulty in obtaining visa clearances to study in the United States, the Departments of State and Homeland Security have announced changes to streamline the visa process for international students and scholars.

    The initiative is intended to “refine policies to reduce visa and port-of-entry processing times without compromising the security of our country,” State Department Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Maura Harty and Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson announced in a joint statement.

    The government announced the changes on Feb. 19, after the Government Accountability Office confirmed a significant decline in the time required for a Visas Mantis clearance.

    Implemented in 1998, the Visas Mantis clearance is used to further screen foreign students and scholars to safeguard scientific and technological information and ensure homeland security.

    The reduction of processing time is a result of several reforms made by the Department of State after a February 2004 GAO study reported that foreign students faced challenges applying for visas.

    “The Visas Mantis program in essence is a check on certain types of students,” said Jess Ford, GAO Director for International Affairs.

    In order to obtain a student visa, international students must schedule an appointment for an interview with a consular official. If eligible after review, students receive a visa within 24 hours, according to the GAO. However, students and scholars in fields deemed more sensitive, such as science and technology, often must undergo the Visas Mantis screening that has, in the past, taken a considerable amount of time to process.

    The State Department, in coordination with the homeland security agency, sought to remedy this particular step in the student visa process because some students have experienced delays, according to the GAO.

    The reduction of the visa clearance procedure has decreased processing time to about two weeks, as compared to an average of 67 days in 2004.

    The changes, however, have stopped short of putting an end to all in-person interviews, a requirement that has been urged by several higher education advocates. Despite the accelerated schedule, federal officials said that the screening process will continue in order to protect national security.

    “The provisions to do the security checks are still there,” Ford said. “Basically, what we’re talking about is management improvement.”

    Improvements were achieved by increasing staff, providing guidance to consular posts, upgrading to more sophisticated technology systems and reasserting priority interview appointments for foreign students, according to the most recent GAO study.

    International students will now be able to retain their visa clearance for up to four years, making it easier for students to visit home for vacations.

    “With the new policies in place, the student will only need to apply for a new visa,” Associate Director of UCSD International Center Michael Hindi said. “This makes short visits, like winter breaks, possible, and it makes longer visits, like those over the summer, less risky.”

    For some students, however, applying for a student visa has not been a grave difficulty. University of Bologna senior Valeria Huerta, who came from Argentina to study at UCSD’s Eleanor Roosevelt College for one year, said that applying for a visa was not a problem, thanks to the established foreign exchange program between the two universities.

    “I think the situation is different when you want to go on your own,” Huerta said. “But since it was a thing between universities, I had no problem.”

    John Muir College senior Sonali Nigam, a student from India, came to UCSD as an undergraduate to study bioengineering. The process to study in the United States was uncomplicated, Nigam said, citing separate reasons for difficulties faced by other students.

    “It had definitely gotten tougher after 9/11, but a lot of it has to do with the economics of it,” Nigam said. “For students whose parents are not supporting them, it will be hard to prove that they will able to support themselves for four years.”

    Despite the reported improvements, some consular offices are still experiencing delays and have yet to adopt the new electronic tracking system to ensure a more smooth Visas Mantis process, according to the GAO report. Students from some countries, like China, experience additional difficulties in visa renewal due to lack of clarity within the program.

    “The hope is that, at least [by] improving this part of the program, it will not discourage legitimate students from coming to the States,” Ford said.

    Readers can contact Christine Pae at

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